Warren’s World: The Yellowstone Club, Skiing and Economic Stratification

By Beacon Staff

When I walked out of the Round House on Sun Valley’s famous Baldy Mountain in 1947 I was followed by Gary Cooper, his wife Rocky and their ski instructor to the chairlift. Several times during his vacation, Gary said to me, “Be sure and come visit me in Hollywood when the snow melts. I’ll even get you onto a movie set where I’m working.”

I knew that once the snow melted we would have absolutely nothing in common, other than the fact that we both lived in Southern California. After World War II, successful and rich were very closely associated and rich became a very negative term to many people who weren’t.

I think that the definition that fits rich better is “economic stratification.”

Gary Cooper was a very talented and financially successful actor, while I was living in my 4-by-8 foot teardrop trailer in the Sun Valley parking lot and skiing seven days a week for less than 20 cents a day. However, when all of us were standing at the top of the mountain deciding which run to ski down, we were all equal and thus “economic stratification” was erased from our interactions.

I have never liked the term rich, because it has come to mean the owner of a multi-million-dollar condo at a ski resort that is only occupied for a week or two a year.

Lately, I have read numerous newspaper articles about, “the haven for the rich and famous at the Yellowstone Club in Montana. Its gated-community guards the super rich from being bothered by less fortunate people.” I signed on as the director of skiing at the club two years before the first lift was installed, because its 14,000 acres of private property would continue to provide a wilderness experience for my children and my grandchildren. I bet that my own vision of the Yellowstone Club would someday become a reality. It has done that and then some. However, during the last 10 years there have been a few divorces among the more than 320 members that have shattered lives. And then a contentious divorce by the founders of the Club, the Blixseths, temporarily delayed the fulfillment of the dream that every member has come to expect. Having one of those ugly divorces in my own background, I know that when you split your financial nest egg in half, it takes a long time to recover. And recovery at The Yellowstone Club is happening right now.

Almost every member that I know graduated from college, with a lot of student debt to pay off. While working at their first real job, they found a new way to do the same thing better and started working six and seven days a week. Not eight hour days, but ten to sixteen hour days. The stories are legend about some of the early Microsoft days when a lot of the young lions slept on the floor in their cubicles for a few hours a night because they were so excited about what they were doing. Economic stratification began to separate them from their friends who only wanted to work eight hours a day, five days a week.

I have considered myself economically stratified ever since the age of 14, when I delivered the Los Angeles Shopping News to Walt Disney’s home in the Los Feliz hills adjoining Griffith Park. In 1937, I could throw the paper over the wall to his house as well as the other economical stratified people who lived in his neighborhood.

In 1950, I borrowed $100 from four friends to launch my motion picture company because no one would loan me the necessary $400 – thus my economic stratification has continued to this day.

Almost every member of The Yellowstone Club is a self-made, very successful person and can’t avoid being economically stratified. Can they pay more for a cup of Starbucks coffee than you can? Do they still drive all night to go skiing close to where they live when they don’t have time for their Montana vacation? Yes, and they do that on a lot of weekends.

What would happen if one of the wealthiest people in the world showed up at Vail or Aspen with his wife and children? They would be mobbed by people wherever they went. The privacy that every member of the Yellowstone Club has earned by their hard work is highly treasured by them.

What if you are a skier, out of work and live in Detroit? You are temporarily economically stratified, but you can still car pool to Boyne Mountain. If you can’t afford to buy a lift ticket, you can climb to the top of the mountain as often as you want to and ski down at your own speed. A lot of skiers did that in the 1930s and ‘40s until we could afford to buy a $2 rope-tow ticket. With the help of gravity, everyone is equal at the top of any mountain. How you got there is up to you. The only inequality at a ski resort is where the various levels of economic stratification will get to sleep after their day of skiing or snowboarding.

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